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South Dakota

More on coronavirus and meat processing

From the Trib:

To understand powerlessness in a pandemic, trace a northbound path from Amarillo up State Highway 87. Not too far shy of the border where Texas meets Oklahoma lies Moore County.

There are few easy ways to make a living in this country of feedlots and dryland cotton, but one of the hardest is at the JBS Beef meatpacking plant. Just about everything looks small on these vast flatlands until you get right up on it, but the 125-acre plant in the tiny town of Cactus is massive from any vantage point.

The steady billow of gray smoke from the plant’s stacks tells you it is still running full tilt. With the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world, it’s considered essential to keep thousands of cattle running through the kill floor each day, headed for dinner tables across America.

Meat and poultry plants nationwide have emerged as incubators for coronavirus spread. More than a dozen have been forced to shut down temporarily as the number of cases and deaths tied to those facilities rose; others have scrambled to ramp up health and safety precautions in facilities where meatpackers often must work shoulder to shoulder.

State health investigators are tracking 159 coronavirus infections tied to the Cactus plant, including one death associated with the outbreak, and Moore County now has the highest reported infection rate in Texas. Yet about 3,000 workers, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala and refugees from Asia and Africa, still report there each day.

Meatpacking has always been brutal and dangerous work, but it pays relatively well. JBS jobs have drawn generations of immigrants to this rural community, so many that Hispanics make up more than half of Moore County’s nearly 22,000 residents, and one quarter of the population is immigrants.

But the people who prop up life here, the ones now getting sick or working in fear wondering when they will, have little power over what the coronavirus is doing to their lives, because they have little power here at all.

From the Observer:

Officials at Tyson’s poultry processing plant in Shelby County may have waited weeks to tell workers that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19, preventing other workers from taking action to prevent the spread of the virus inside the facility, plant employees told the Observer last week. The company waited even longer to implement rudimentary safeguards (such as breathing masks and plastic screens to separate workstations) as more workers fell ill, were hospitalized, and died, they say.

[…]

The Observer has changed Bennett’s name, as well as the two other employees named in this story, after employees expressed concern that Tyson might retaliate against them for speaking to a reporter. The story also omits some details of employees’ positions within the plant and their medical histories to make them less identifiable. The extent to which the Tyson outbreak has contributed to COVID cases in this rural region is still unclear, partially because of a lack of reliable state data on infection rates and testing. It is clear, however, that some workers feel as if Tyson put profits over worker safety as the virus spread through the facility this month. If the company had distributed protective equipment earlier, “it probably wouldn’t be as bad as it is now,” Bennett says.

The employees say that approximately three weeks ago, a plant supervisor told workers that at least one employee had tested positive. But they shouldn’t worry, the supervisor reportedly said—the case had occurred two weeks earlier, so other workers likely wouldn’t be threatened. The announcement hit the workers like a bombshell. “I don’t think it was fair to us as employees the way they waited until 14 days later to tell us,” says Denise Richardson, who has not contracted the virus. “If you’ve got paperwork confirming that someone has it, you let everybody know and give us all an opportunity to take proper precautions.” At the time, the company had just recently begun to start screening workers by checking their temperature, and masks had not been widely distributed to employees, Richardson says.

By the time Tyson alerted employees to the danger, the virus already appeared to be spreading. Bennett, after days of “feeling sicker and sicker, weaker and weaker” at work, was hospitalized shortly after the announcement. Bobby Dawson, another Tyson employee, tested positive for COVID-19 about the same time as Bennett. He says he informed plant supervisors about the positive test result the same day he learned of it. Dawson criticized the company for not telling him about the situation sooner, which would have allowed him to take precautionary measures to keep from getting sick, such as taking days off work or wearing protective equipment. “They hid it from us. They didn’t give us a choice to do anything,” Dawson told the Observer. “Their main concern is to get them chickens out, regardless of what their employees are going through. That’s why we all come up sick.”

The conditions of the plant lend themselves to the spread of disease, the workers say. Employees work “elbow to elbow” as they defeather, eviscerate, and debone thousands of birds a day. Even the most innocuous task—such as clocking in for a shift and clocking out at the end of the day—appears to present considerable risk, as hundreds of employees crowd the few functional terminals. “You got so many people trying to clock in at one time you can’t do nothing but catch it,” Richardson says. “We’re packed in there like a bunch of sardines.”

Richardson also notes that many of the plant’s workers cross the border each day from Shelby County’s adjacent parishes in Louisiana, a state that’s been ravaged by the virus. Shelby County shares a border with DeSoto Parish, where at least 180 confirmed cases and 10 deaths have been counted among a population of only 27,000.

See here for the background. These and other meat processing plants will continue to stay open due to federal order. I don’t have anything to add here, just that you should go read both of these stories.

Coronavirus and meat processing

In the Panhandle:

State health officials confirmed Tuesday that they are investigating an outbreak of the new coronavirus at the JBS Beef packing plant in the Texas Panhandle, part of ongoing efforts to monitor major meat processing plants as the pandemic continues to threaten food supply chains.

Earlier this month, the Department of State Health Services conducted an epidemiological investigation in Shelby County that identified a cluster of 14 coronavirus cases and two related deaths that were “in some manner” tied to employees of a Tyson Foods facility.

Now, a department spokeswoman said, an “environmental assessment team” is being sent to Moore County to advise on ways the massive meatpacking plant, which processes a significant portion of the nation’s beef, can curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new strain of the coronavirus.

The investigation follows the shuttering of the company’s meat packing plants in other states because of local outbreaks. Moore County, near the Oklahoma border, has one of the highest rates of infection per capita in the state. (Some local leaders attribute it to rapid testing.)

After a call with Tyson Foods officials, the health department asked the company to enact additional protections for employees at its facility near the Louisiana border, including monitoring all individuals entering the facility for both fever and other COVID-19 related symptoms, and to increase its sanitizing as part of the transportation the company provides for workers.

And in East Texas:

The state health department is investigating cases at a Tyson poultry processing plant in Shelby County that may comprise a significant number of the county’s 69 confirmed cases. While meatpackers across the nation have been slammed with high numbers of coronavirus cases, leading to the deaths of workers and facility closures, this represents one of the first known outbreaks of the virus at a plant in Texas.

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) has offered few details of its investigation into the outbreak at the Tyson facility on the Texas-Louisiana border. But Dr. Florencio Singson, who operates a clinic in Center, the county seat, told the Observer that health officials said the outbreak represents a “majority” of the county’s cases. Meanwhile, Tyson posted on its Facebook page that it is closing the facility this week. The post made no mention of the apparent outbreak, saying only that the company was installing new equipment at the plant.

Shelby County, population 25,400, has one of the highest per capita rates of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas. It’s nearly four times that of the state overall, and the highest countywide rate outside the Panhandle. Cases ballooned in Louisiana and into East Texas in recent weeks, with coronavirus now confirmed in nearly every Texas county in the region, many of which are rural and have limited medical resources. Many also have large populations of African Americans, who are being infected with and dying of coronavirus at disproportionately high rates.

Public health experts say the spread of coronavirus in the region (and the state overall, which had nearly 20,200 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday evening) is likely dramatically undercounted due to limited testing. “We know it’s underreported [in Shelby County],” Singson told the Observer. Texas has been slow to roll out widespread testing, resulting in among the fewest completed tests per capita of any state.

As the Observer story notes, COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred at meat processing plants around the country, with the Smithfield outbreak in South Dakota being the worst so far. It’s not a surprise – workers are in close proximity, and there has been little done by their employers to keep them safe, which is typical for an industry that generally treats its employees terribly. Smithfield had the benefit of a union – you can listen to a short conversation with the local labor council president for Sioux Falls here if you want to learn more about that location – but it wasn’t enough. I can’t imagine the workers in Texas, at either location, having it any better. You want to know what’s in the future when and if we “reopen the economy” without a real plan and real resources for universal testing and worker protection, there you have it.

By the way, the city of Cactus, where the JBS plant is, is under an executive order requiring “everyone over the age of five” to “wear a covering over their mouth and nose when outside their home or vehicle”, with violators subject to a fine of up to $1,000. Sound familiar? Moore County voted 75% for Donald Trump in 2016. I’m just saying.

Tough times for Presidential heads

This makes me sad.

As polarized politics continue to rage in the Beltway, rural Virginia still has a place where Democrats, Republicans — and some Whigs — stand shoulder to shoulder.

The busts of the first 43 U.S. presidents, each standing at least 15 feet tall and weighing nearly 10 tons, are huddled on the property of Howard Hankins, a local developer who saved them from destruction.

“They all listen to me,” Hankins said of the past commanders-in-chief.

The concrete busts are the remnants of the now-defunct Presidents Park in Williamsburg, Virginia. The 10-acre, $10 million open-air museum, citing a lack of interest from visitors, closed in 2010.

When the park opened in 2004, it was apparently too hidden from passersby, partially obscured by a Days Inn hotel. It appeared the park’s designers failed to consider a vital real estate mantra: location, location, location.

Seeing value in the presidential busts, Hankins said he stepped in and paid about $50,000 to move them to his property 10 miles away.

“The eyes look like they’re staring at you, just gazing at you. It’s incredible how big they are and lifelike,” he said.

First, Hankins had to crack the back of the presidents’ hollow heads to attach a chain that linked the steel frames inside to a crane. Then, each bust was jostled loose from their spot in the park.

Originally, the busts were assembled from two pieces, welded at the middle of their necks. This meant many of the busts suffered neck breaks during the move, as the head started to separate from the shoulders.

Abraham Lincoln’s head suffered the worst damage. The chain attached to it snapped, Hankins said, and even though tires were laid out to cushion any impact, Lincoln was dropped on the back of his head.

The hole in Lincoln’s head is not meant as an allusion.

In all, Hankins said moving the busts to his 600-acre farm required several days of work.

Now, all 43 presidential busts reside on Hankin’s property in various states of ruin. The once-pristine, white paint coatings have lost out to the elements, cracked and ripped off from wind, sun exposure and rain.

For those of us who are fans of David Adickes’ work, as you know I am, the pictures in that story are especially heartbreaking. As noted, these busts were shipped out to Williamsburg back in 2004, with a second set going to a Presidential park near Mount Rushmore and a third set heading to Pearland. Far as I know, those two sets are doing all right, though maybe we ought to do a wellness check on them. The good news here is that the Virginia heads ought to be fixable, and the guy who bought them cares for them and is trying to do right by them. Best of luck to you, Howard Hankins. Many thanks to Linkmeister for sending me this story.

Bathroom bills are floundering

Good.

Bills to curtail transgender people’s access to public restrooms are pending in about a dozen states, but even in conservative bastions such as Texas and Arkansas they may be doomed by high-powered opposition.

The bills have taken on a new significance this week following the decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to revoke an Obama-era federal directive instructing public schools to let transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms of their chosen gender. Many conservative leaders hailed the assertions by top Trump appointees that the issue was best handled at the state and local level.

Yet at the state level, bills that would limit transgender bathroom access are floundering even though nearly all have surfaced in Republican-controlled legislatures that share common ground politically with Trump. In none of the states with pending bills does passage seem assured; there’s been vigorous opposition from business groups and a notable lack of support from several GOP governors.

The chief reason, according to transgender-rights leaders, is the backlash that hit North Carolina after its legislature approved a bill in March 2016 requiring transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates. Several major sports organizations shifted events away from North Carolina, and businesses such as PayPal decided not to expand in the state. In November, Republican Pat McCrory, who signed and defended the bill, became the only incumbent governor to lose in the general election.

[…]

National LGBT-rights groups are closely monitoring the fluctuations, recalling how North Carolina politicians took activists by surprise last year when they passed the divisive bathroom bill in a fast-paced special session.

“That experience makes us very wary about when and how legislation will move,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. “On the other hand, the American public has been incredibly vocal against these bills… so we’re hopeful that legislators have learned a lesson from North Carolina.”

Even if all the new bathroom bills fail, Warbelow said activists will continue to push for explicit and effective federal protections for transgender students — protections have been undercut by this week’s revocation of the Obama-era guidance.

In addition to Arkansas, I counted fourteen other states where legislators have tried or are trying to pass a North Carolina-like bill, though none of the ones that are trying are getting any traction. The fact that states like South Dakota and Kentucky have explicitly rejected such bills should give you some idea of how far out on a limb Texas would be if we follow Dan Patrick and pass SB6. All these other states saw what happened in North Carolina, and they have stepped back from the abyss. Are we really dumber than they all are? Call Dan Patrick’s office, as so many others have, and ask him that.

Tinker the T-Rex to come to Texas

Here’s your dinosaur lawsuit news for the week.

The fossilized remains of Tinker the teenage T. rex soon could be returning to the prospectors who unearthed them, after a recent ruling from a federal bankruptcy court.

Most of the 65-million-year-old fossils have spent years in storage in Pennsylvania under the jurisdiction of a trustee, after the man hired to restore them filed for bankruptcy protection.

The trustee wanted fossil hunters Ron Frithiof of Austin, Texas, and Kim Hollrah of Iowa to pay $75,000 for services from Barry James and his company, Prehistoric Journeys.

A federal judge ruled last month that they owed just $18,480. Frithiof’s attorney, Joe Ellingson, said he assumes his client finally will be able to take possession of Tinker as soon as he pays that amount.

“It’s kind of kept things in limbo for so long,” he said. “We wanted to take possession of the fossil.”

The Tyrannosaurus was unearthed from northwest South Dakota in 1998. Tinker is believed to be the first nearly complete fossilized skeleton of a juvenile T. rex ever found. About a third of the dinosaur has been recovered so far.

The bankruptcy case is a short chapter in Tinker’s clouded history, which also involved a five-year ownership battle in federal court.

And quite a history it is. I just hope that when all the litigation is over and Tinker has been fully excavated and reconstructed that its final destination will be a museum, where people can see him and scientists can freely study him. It would be a terrible shame if such a fine specimen were to wind up in a private collection somewhere out of sight.